Is the virulence of parasites an outcome of optimized infection? Virulence has often been considered an inevitable consequence of parasite reproduction when the cost incurred by the parasite in reducing the fitness of its current host is offset by increased infection of new hosts. More recent models have focused on how competition occurring between parasites during co–infection might effect selection of virulence. For example, if co–infection was common, parasites with higher intrinsic growth rates might be selected, even at the expense of being optimally adapted to infect new hosts. If growth rate is positively correlated with virulence, then competition would select increased virulence. We tested these models using a plasmid–encoded virulence determinant. The virulence determinant did not contribute to the plasmid's reproduction within or between hosts. Despite this, virulent plasmids were more successful than avirulent derivatives during selection in an environment allowing within–host competition. To explain these findings we propose and test a model in which virulent parasites are selected by reducing the reproduction of competitors.
↵† Present address: School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.